Hardcover, 368 pages
Published March 10th 2016 by Hodder & Stoughton Ltd
I have a fairly up-and-down relationship with Daniel Polansky’s work – I enjoy almost all of it, and for large portions of each (most, more accurately) of his books, I’ve experienced pure joy reading. However, as I’ve pointed out in numerous reviews of Daniel’s books, I’m consistently frustrated with his novels. His prose is, for the majority of the time, stellar – among my favorite of any author, an absolute pleasure to consume. I generally enjoy his characters, his worldbuilding, his creativity. However, in every novel, I’ve felt like he just didn’t quite put all the pieces together, whether it be flat spots in certain sections, making decisions in the story that didn’t make much sense to me, or even just overwriting chunks of the book. I’ve been quite upset with it at times, because I feel as though he could be one of my favorite writers.
Those Below threw all of that above criticism out the window.
While I will stop short of saying that I think Polansky has finally ‘put it all together’ (largely based on the fact I did not enjoy his newest novel all that much, but that was obviously personal preference, based on style and decisions), I will say that I thought Those Below was far and away the best, and most complete, of his works to date. The story arc, progression, characters and dialogue, story direction choices, misdirection, and of course the wonderful prose all worked, all clicked, all felt fulfilling and complete. As much as I wanted to see the resolutions, I dreaded reaching the end, though I thought the conclusion itself was very well done, very moving, and exceptionally impactful.
Those Below picks up not too long after where it’s prequel, Those Above, left off – following Eudokia, Calla, Pyre, and co at the Roost, the magical tiered city run by, well, Those Above, the Eternal, a species of nearly-immortal, godlike people, with some avian qualities. Additionally, we returned to my favorite character from the first book, Bas – the hero warrior of the Aelerian empire, one of the only known to have killed one of Those Above – as he marches his army towards the Roost in preparations for an invasion and war. The pieces have been laid for this, with Pyre and his Five Fingered brethren wreaking havoc in the lower – poorer and more oppressed – parts of the city, sowing the seeds of rebellion, disrupting trade and striking fear into the humans of the higher rungs, ever closer to the Eternal.
The twists involved in this story are not exactly the most shocking, however they were well set up, well presented, and as the pieces fell into place the story became more and more enjoyable. The understated, but incredibly powerful Eudokia mentally sparring with the leader of the Eternal, as well as several of his peers, and of course with Calla, the human servant and representative of the leader of the Eternal (as well as her involvement with Eudokia’s nephew), was one of the more enjoyable bits I’ve read. Calla and her relationship conflicts, being torn between seeing the human’s point of view, while still appreciating the Eternal for their greatness, and the great life her and her predecessors had lived due to them. Bas and his melancholy, his slow descent and acceptance of his purpose, his place in the world, and his inevitable end while his friends fall around him.
The setup is a bit of an anomaly – the book is definitely a slow burner, despite being relatively short, but does keep you engaged the entire time. I never had the periods of incredibly slow movement I experienced in most of his previous works, never lost any interest, never wanted to really put the book down once I was reading it. I always wanted to know what would happen next, how the impending battle would go down, whether we were going to be shocked in the end.
Those Below was certainly one of my favorite reads of 2016, and gave me that “all in” Polansky piece that I’d been desiring after reading his previous works. It was enjoyable front to back, and it was impressive just how much he fit into only two ~350 page novels, a rather refreshing dip from long-winded doorstoppers that have become so common in fantasy. Daniel does not waste words, does not fill space with nonsense, but the words he does use are wonderful and glorious in this piece, and I savored every bit of it.